We’re off to Beaverbrook. Come hail (a lot) or shine (a little) an A Class Mercedes spinning through Surrey on the stormiest day of the year is just what the doctor ordered although possibly not the meteorologist. The gated sprawling estate – legendary hectares of rollingness – is divided into The Haves (see you at The Garden House) and The Haves Even More (we’ll be calling up to see you at The Big House). Ever versatile, we’ll do both. Especially since our guests have travelled 12 hours to make if for lunch.
Forbes, the only other publication to join us a few years ago in Montenegro at the behest of the Government of the former Yugoslavian state, has beaten us to today’s destination. Its verdict? “Beaverbrook is arguably England’s most beautiful new hotel.” Last week’s Sunday Times is almost as glowing, “One of the UK’s top country house hotels.” Scrawled on a blackboard in the glasshouse is a flower recipe, “Wax flower, statis, limonium, gypsophila, spag. moss.” It’s a metaphor for Beaverbrook: classy, quirky and drawing on the best that nature has to offer.
In England, thanks to Pall Mall the noun “mall” (rhymes with “Al”) conjures up images of grand boulevards lined with majestic buildings. In America, it’s an out of town covered shopping centre (rhymes with “all”). In Ireland, it’s something else altogether. While alumni of University of Ulster may remember The Mall as being the wide corridor linking the main lecture theatres of the Jordanstown campus, it is more recognisable as a street name in town centres.
The Mall in Ballyshannon is definitely at the lower key end of the Irish variety. It begins to the west of Upper Main Street with a variety of late 18th century and early 19th century townhouses and, passing Mall Quay, gradually peters out further to the west into a semirural lane looping round the Erne Estuary. Parallel with The Mall to the north is the even more informal Back Mall. The arched laneway abutting Dorrians Imperial Hotel at the most easterly end of Back Mall is a nerve wrecking few millimetres wider than the average car.
The town is built on a hill rising up from the north bank of the River Erne. A smaller portion of the town lies to the south of the river including a series of distinguished villas backing onto the Erne Estuary. The oldest surviving building is the long low former Barracks dating from 1700. This is a well disguised (being converted into miscellaneous shops) relic of a colonial past. Main Street splits into Upper Main Street and Castle Street to form a loop round the town centre.
One of the most prominent buildings in Ballyshannon, highly visible in long distance views of the town, is the former bank with a clock and bell tower on Main Street. It reaches the equivalent of eight storeys in height: a skyscraper in relative terms for County Donegal. Scottish baronial crow step gables – a little bit of the Highlands on the Wild Atlantic Way – add more drama to its silhouette. Opened in 1878, the building is constructed of rubblestone with cut ashlar details. A single storey wing in a surprisingly neoclassical vein fronts Castle Street. Paired Corinthian columns in front of corresponding pilasters frame entrance doors and support a pediment flanked by an arch headed window on one side and an archway on the other.
When it comes to ecclesiastical buildings Ballyshannon doesn’t do wallflower architecture. This is the bold and proud northwest. It is a strategic location in south Donegal close to Counties Fermanagh and Leitrim and in more recent times the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Church of Ireland is spectacularly positioned to the west of Main Street high above Erne Estuary with far reaching views of Tullan Strand to the west and Ben Bulben Mountain in County Sligo to the southwest. The former Presbyterian Church, now vacant, is lower lying on The Mall. To the east of Main Street, St Patrick’s Catholic Church looks down on the town. All of them grey in hue, St Patrick’s wins the award for architecture as topography. Surely it was hewed and chiselled not designed and built.
“St Patrick. A long stone church set sideways to the ridge of the hill. Primitive Norman detailing. Seven bay two storey. In the middle of the north side is a big square tower and spire, inscribed ‘Dan Campbell, Builder, 1842’. J J McCarthy added the polygonal chancel in 1860.” And finally, “Presbyterian Church. Jumbled Nonconformist Gothic. A three bay hall in stone with Y traceried windows, built for Dr James Murphy about 1840, and extended in a T plan at its west end.”
Camlin Tower is a distractingly striking landmark on a bend on the Belleek road just outside Ballyshannon. It is a battlemented gate tower attached to a grand gated archway which opens onto a lane leading to… a derelict cottage, a barn and a field full of shire horses. Camlin was once the seat of the Trendennick family from Bodwin, Cornwall; they bought the estate from William Connolly in circa 1718. The big house was rebuilt in 1838 to the design of John Benjamin Keane. It was a two storey five bay Tudor Gothic building similar to the same architect’s Castle Irvine in County Fermanagh. The estate was sold to the Land Commission at the turn of last century. The house was erroneously demolished as part of the mid 20th century Ballyshannon Hydroelectric Scheme works. It was thought the house would be submerged by the new reservoir but the water level never did reach the ruins.
“Running… Running uphill…” (Rabbit, Run by John Updike, 1961). After a Taits (our new fav Reims bubbles) pre party, it might be past Mercury Retrograde and Wolf Moon is just a memory yet we’re still running the roads. “Oh dear! Oh dear! We sha’n’t be too late!” We’re off to the wonderland that is the Sussex-farm-to-King’s-Road-forkRabbit restaurant. “Spring, fall, summer, autumn: a life as well as a year has its seasons.” (Rabbit, Run, once more). For fork’s sake, a menu, too, has its seasons, especially when the owners tell, “We use all things wild, foraged and locally grown, including sustainable livestock from the Gladwins’ family farm in West Sussex. We call this ‘local and wild’.” We’re local and we’re wild.
They’ve more to say, “We grow and produce a range of award winning wines in our very own Nutbourne Vineyards. The 10 hectares of landscape are carefully looked after to preserve the natural habitat. We grow Bacchus, Riesling family varietals, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. We produce 40,000 bottles each year. We like our customers to enjoy a bottle of Nutbourne Wine in the spirit of ‘what grows together goes together’.”
Rabbit is carefully casual with a haphazard picture hang on the exposed brick walls and the odd bit of taxidermy in between. Something resembling a cattle grid droops from the corrugated metal ceiling. Or maybe it is a cattle grid. This restaurant is a celebration of rustic farmhouse dining with urban views. At one end of the simple L shape – this is no rabbit warren – is the frenetic King’s Road. At the other end, a picture window frames Burnsall Street with its boxy dormered Dutch gabled Marseille pantile roofed Juliet balconied chamfered bayed sun kissed pastel coloured townhouses. Clientele are well heeled, literally; this is after all the fashionista friendly St Luke’s Parish. Bunny Rogers would approve.
“Jacques Rolancey, the Lyonnais Chef, is truer to his native cooking that he is to the imperatives of international hotel practice. His lack of fancy is remarkable. Flavours are confidently unexaggerated. Scallops with white truffle and balsamic vinegar are excellent. Cannelloni is stuffed with a light spinach and herb mixture sauced with a vegetable jus…” We’re up for a bit of channelling John Updike’s character Rabbit. We’re running, always running, into the light, that eternally focused light.
Meanwhile, there’s a narcissistic golden rabbit on the loose in County Tyrone.
Great Grandmother Elizabeth McClelland and a companion captured living their best lives at Bellevue Zoo Belfast. The hot and heady August of 1928. What are their thoughts? How were they feeling? Great Granny had a feather in her hat, as always. But who is her glamorous dark eyed sallow skinned high cheek boned wide brim hatted mysterious chum? They’ve both posies pinned to their lapels; clearly this was a big day out.
Who is the gentleman in the wheelchair, gazing right as if in anticipation of a motorcar pulling up shortly? Why else would anyone photograph a subject from the rear? Where is that Edwardian looking house with its catslide roofed return? It appears to face the sea. Somewhere on the Irish coast? Did the person behind the camera realise he or she was taking a beautifully lit and proportioned piece of photographic art? Or was it just a lucky snap?
Aunt Pam and a friend loving the pigeons of Trafalgar Square. Having the time of their lives. Bring the birds back! Note Aunt Pam’s perfectly pleated coat: she stood an impressive six feet tall. Pamela Glenday wasn’t an actual aunt. She was the best friend of Elizabeth Gribben whose mother was photographed at Bellevue Zoo. They met at country houses across the south of England in their late teens. Aunt Pam moved back to Dunfermline and never married. She was a great cook.
Ah, Uncle Sammy. A blood uncle or rather great uncle. Another child of Great Granny McClelland; Elizabeth Gribben’s younger brother. Ever debonair, Sammy was in a rush through life except when posing in fashion’s finest; he never had time to get married. After a high flying career in the Royal Air Force, Sammy lived in England and Wales before settling back in Ireland.
Superlux brand Kimpton has four hotels on mainland Britain. North of the border, the two hotels are neoclassical: Charlotte Square, Edinburgh, and Blythswood Square, Glasgow. The two south of the border are High Victorian: Russell Square, London, and Oxford Street, Manchester. The late afternoon winter sunlight streaming down makes the terracotta all clear: Kimpton Clockhouse Hotel in Manchester is a panoply of barley twist columns and stylised ionic capitals and naturalistic floral patterns sculpted out of the red stuff, all towering up from the sweet flow of the River Medlock. The brick walls are aglow, on fire, red on red. The trio of buildings which form the hotel are the last bloom of High Victoriana; in fact they’re an overflow of this most dramatic of styles, for the iconic 66 metre tall clocktower was only completed in 1912.
In their 1998 Manchester Architecture Guide, Eamonn Canniffe and Tom Jefferies lead with, “The cutting of Whitworth Street in the 1890s results in a series of large self confident buildings along it. a monument to insurance, the mammoth Refuge Building exploits the full possibilities of architectural ceramics. Its interior employs white glazed brick for the former office space, but the exterior exploits the potential of terracotta for insistent repetitive ornament over large surfaces. Articulated frames to the high windows culminate in barley sugar columns, while the great brick tower is a landmark in many directions. The porte cochère beneath it, with its glazed dome and memorial to the company’s War Dead, is now the reception for the Palace Hotel which currently occupies this dramatic and robust building.”
A cluster of contemporary talent has worked on moulding the Palace Hotel into the Kimpton Clocktower Hotel. 3DReid Architects explain, “Our work on the hotel, the former Palace Hotel, sought to strip back poor interventions made in the 1990s and reposition is as a ‘lifestyle hotel’ worthy of the building’s history and character. In the former Refuge Assurance Hall we created a new Winter Garden as the focus of the space, surrounded by a new bar, restaurant and den. This enabled the space to be used as an ‘all day offer’. One of the key moves was improving circulation routes around the buildings that make up the hotel.” Michaelis Boyd were the interior designers and the 360 guest rooms and 11 suites are brightened by Timorous Beasties textiles.
The grander than grand ground floor spaces of the Kimpton Clocktower Hotel are all abuzz: the late afternoon winter sunlight streaming down makes the encaustic tiling all clear – and reflects off the hair curlers in female guests’ emerging hairdos. A bronze horse sculpture by Sophie Dickens, granddaughter of the writer, welcomes visitors in the marble floored stone walled glass domed entrance lobby. Up a few stairs, along a corridor – there are lots of stairs and corridorsc – and the bar and dining room have been branded The Refuge. This 930 square metre space spills into the Winter Garden which was formed by glazing over a courtyard. It is good, oh so good, to be here. Later, the bright and cloudless morning will break, eternal bright and fair.
It’s the perfect temperature for serving coffee and Monsieur Moreau assures us 63 degrees Celsius is the optimal temperature for cooking. “Cooked long and low at 63 degrees, food tastes like you’ve never tasted it before. So 63 degrees represents for us the love and care that goes into all our cooking.” But before all that heat we need a chilled bottle of Sancerre. “’Au jour d’hui comme autrofois’ Domaine Daniel Brochard is a 2018 to 2019 vintage. It’s produced as Daniel Brochard’s ancestors would have done without any fining, filtration or temperature control to give an incredible intensity of flavour. The aroma is packed with intense gooseberry and nettle perfume.”
“Taxi sirs?” asks the maître d’ as we finish lunch. “Strangeways Prison please.”
Manchester is gritty not pretty and all the better for it. The monumentality of its Victorian built heritage is so overwhelming it swallows up the odd ugly 20th century infill. The city’s simplistic branding works well, from Chinatown (red balloons in the sky) to the Northern Quarter (grey bollards on the ground). First year 1990s town planning degree buzzwords are at play: legibility and permeability. Another thing the city does well is subtle restoration – respecting the patina of age.
The cavernous indoor space with its roof lanterns has been retained with bars and food outlets along the outer walls encircling the central dining spaces. On a cold Saturday afternoon the place is teeming. Towards evening, local girls pour in unselfconsciously wearing large hair curlers in their hair. The manicured Mancunians take their nightlife seriously. Some guys are in football tops while others have opted for the boho look. In a way nothing has changed since Mayor Mackie opened Mackie Mayor all those centuries ago. It’s still a meat market.